(by Amilcar Sanatan)
“She could work miracles, she would make a garment from a square of cloth in a span that defied time/ or feed twenty people on a stew made from-the-head cabbage leaves and a carrot and a cho-cho and a palmful of meat”
– ‘For my Mother (May I Inherit Half her Strength)’, Lorna Goodison
When we begin to discuss gender affairs and more specifically, the unequal power relations that persist in them, we learn that the Caribbean is a field of unlikely contrasts. In political parties, women are central to ‘getting out the vote’; women, generally, are the party activists who keep the slogans and party colours alive; and women also form a major part of the electorate. Why is it that there is a struggle for women to access seats of political leadership? And, why is this struggle so different from their male counterparts?
I live with the vivid memory of my mother instructing me to return a snack at the grocery store as we approached the cashier. My mother, with a stern eye pointed to the direction of the grocery lane and cashed all trolley items – the chocolate bar never made it with me that day.
While unpacking the groceries and placing the tinned foods and rice in the cupboards, meat and cassava slices into the freezer, lettuce into the crisper and the delicate submission of eggs (after being wiped) to their tray, my mother fell to her knees once and asked that I finish the task. Her headache was overbearing. She worked in the office and made groceries in the evening.
She literally worked all day. Too short on empathy, I worried more about not having things go my way instead of worrying of my mother’s condition. I asked her, “Why didn’t you allow me to buy the chocolate?”
My mother guided me to the dining table where she pulled together all her utility bills and bank statements. First, she informed me that when you buy something you must pay for it. Second, she explained how much groceries, electricity, school fees, extra- curricular activities, mortgage, and car loan payments did not leave her with much savings. She continued to try her best to save.
My mother, like many Caribbean women, performed miracles in the financial and psychic management of our home economy. Many Caribbean citizens have had similar experiences in female-headed Caribbean homes. For this reason, it always amazes me when some men and women doubt the leadership of women in national political and economic affairs.
In no way I am arguing that women are essentially natural managers, rather I argue that many women have exercised executive leadership, consensus building, informed decision making and empowerment in multiple spheres of life for their survival and the livelihood of others and these practices and work ethic can do a lot in its translation to the Caribbean political landscape.
At present, the World Bank Report shows the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments (%) in the Caribbean. We have Barbados 17%, Dominica 13%, Guyana 31%, Jamaica 13%, St. Lucia 17%, and Trinidad and Tobago 29%. That data shows that there has been a gradual increase in the numbers of women involved in Caribbean governance at local government levels, as senior legislators, party political leaders and cabinet ministers.
Although the fight is not over, we owe a great debt of gratitude to the activists and civil society leadership of women who made issues of representation and citizenship as development priorities.
In Guyana, the parliamentary quota system is an important and necessary recognition by the society that unequal power relations hinder national development.
Interestingly, Jamaica, Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago gave to the CARICOM Simpson-Miller, Charles and Persad-Bissessar. They also give us examples where women can access the highest public office outside of quotas and marriage. Still, the women’s movement has sought to go beyond the “numbers game” as it relates to women’s representation in government and governance structures.
We already know that quotas are useful in providing women with opportunities to have a seat at the power table. However, it is when we adopt the agendas of the women’s movement, we begin to change the conversation that happens there.
The Caribbean women’s movement has always been about the bigger picture. This is a commitment to developing the State and other sectors by breaking down the cultural and social institutions that disempower women (and men). This form of politics works to ensure that all people are not just given an equal chance to access political office but access to all resources to citizens ethically.
Some major agenda and manifesto items are gender-responsive budgets, legislation that tackles Gender-Based Violence, funding for sex- disaggregated research for development, defending the rights of young girls and boys, access to water, education and healthcare.
The women’s agenda considers the overall representation of all people and their participation in the development process. Advocates in the women’s movement eat breakfast too, they use umbrellas when the rain falls and do everyday things like everyday people.
It is not an agenda “tryin’ to take power from man” instead it is a movement that challenges male power and male-democratic standards that limit the possibilities of women and men and good governance in our Caribbean.